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Stop skirting the issue, women are still judged on their appearance

By Chloe Hamilton

A friend of mine was once summoned into a private office by her team leader and told, gently, that the clothes she wore to the office were inappropriate. Two senior members of staff had deemed her skirts too short. Both had made complaints.

She described her shock and embarrassment to us all when we met in a bar the following weekend. Naturally, we rallied round and decided her stratospheric rise from graduate trainee to senior account executive said more about her abilities than the length of her skirt. We bought a round of cocktails, hitched up our own thigh-skimmers, and thought no more of it.

I was reminded of the incident after reading about Gauhar Khan, the Indian television presenter who was slapped live on air by a man in the audience who felt that her clothes were too revealing. Muslim women, he reasoned, should not wear such short dresses. Cue gasps of horror from the liberal West.

The truth, however, is that we haven't got rid of our own unhealthy obsession with what women wear.

If we're not criticising too-short skirts, we're berating girls who plump for frumpier clothes or salivating over curves poured into figure-hugging dresses, with scant attention paid to the women inside.

This isn't just a problem that affects men. The Australian television anchor Karl Stefanovic wore the same blue suit for a year to make a point about the way in which his female colleagues are judged. No one noticed.

When I emailed my friend to ask if I could use her anecdote for this column ("Yes, of course. Would you like a picture of me in the skirt?"), we agreed it was hard to imagine a male colleague being subjected to a similar dressing down in the boss's office.

What, we pondered, could a man wear that might be deemed unsuitable?

He could be ticked off for not donning a tie in an important meeting, or for arriving at work with a toothpaste smear down his lapel, but he's unlikely to be dragged behind closed doors and humiliated with a word as shaming as "inappropriate".

The adjective drips with subtext and suggests a woman's body is unfitting for the workplace. The implication is, of course, that if a girl reveals her legs in the office, she is knowingly inviting men to lust after her. Or that, in choosing to wear an outfit that doesn't completely cloak her, she is making herself sexually available. She is not.

I'm not saying all women should sit at their desks in skirts shorter than my belt just to prove a point. It works the other way too.

Only this weekend, Clare Balding told a newspaper she wished female breakfast television presenters could go to work in pyjamas rather than in short, glitzy dresses - adding that women being judged on appearance "stultifies talent". She's right.

As a society we focus so intently on what a woman is (or isn't) wearing, we lose sight of triumphs beyond the dressing room.

My friend's outfit was called into question despite her unfaltering work ethic, consistent target-hitting, and excellent relationship with clients.

With that in mind, did the length of her skirt really matter?

It's time we celebrated women's achievements, instead of their appearance. An ambitious man is valued for his brain, with his beauty largely ignored. It isn't too much to ask for the same standards to be applied to women.

A case in point: Malia and Sasha Obama were criticised last week by a Republican official, who claimed that the short skirts the sisters wore while with their father at the traditional Thanksgiving turkey pardoning ceremony showed a lack of "class". The official, who has since deleted her comments, implored the girls to dress "like you deserve respect", as though admiration can be won and lost over the length of a skirt.

Incidentally, can anyone remember what President Obama was wearing?

I thought not.

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